> Science Fiction Readings: Spring and Summer of 2015

I’ve read quite bit of science fiction this spring and summer, but i have not kept a careful record, so here are the highlights:

  • The Shockwave Rider (by John Brunner) – this is a classic from the beginning of the cyber-punk genre. It’s an early book where something like the internet plays a big role in the plot. The author predicts many things that are true today, for example at one point he describes the world wide network where “…confidential information had been rendered accessible to total strangers capable of adding two and two…”. The hero of this story reminded me a little of Edward Snowden, however in the book the act of publishing secrets results in great social change, not at all like what happened in the actual world.
  • Flow My Tears The Policeman Said (by Philip K. Dick) – I read this book in the past and this time I understood little better what went on. Still PKD’s books are quite a ride, because – as my daughter described it – the author pulls the rug from under the reader, then the floor, and then the ground.  The title of the book is taken from an beautiful  17th century song called “Flow My Tears“.
  • The Martian (by Andy Weir) – this is a story by a space geek about an astronaut who is left behind, when a NASA mission to Mars has to be aborted after landing. The book was great fun to read and now there is a movie!
  • The Science Fiction Hall of Fame – Volume Two A (edited by Ben Bova) – this is a collection of longer pieces by various authors. Here are the names of the stories I read:
    • “Universe” (by Robert Heinlein)  – early generation ship story.
    • “The Marching Morons” (by C.M. Kornbluth) – person from the past turns to be much smarter than people who revived him. See the movie “Idiocracy“.
    • Vintage Season” (H. Kuttner and C.L. Moore) – time tourism.
    • The Ballad of Lost C’Mell” (Cordwainer Smith) – mild class warfare.
    • Baby Is Three” (Theodore Sturgeon) – spooky story with some paranormal twists.
  • Quicksilver (by Neal Stephenson) – this was the second time I attempted to read this book. I think I got in little further, but just got bogged down. The main problem for me was that there were to many characters introduced, yet nothing much seemed to happen. So again I gave up. I’d rather read actual history.

>Science Fiction: “The Invincible”

“The Invincible” is one of the early novels by Stanislaw Lem. The first edition came out in 1964. Recently a new translation has been published as an e-book and that’s the version I have read (I have read other editions in the past, including the Polish edition).

The book is fascinating story of a spaceship, “The Invincible”, on a rescue mission to find a sister ship, “The Condor”, which disappeared on an uninhabited planet sometime before.  As the plot progresses we find that some kind of strange mechanical evolution took place on the planet in question, creating some incomprehensible “life” forms.

What I find amazing about Lem is his imagination to come up not just with plot ideas but also with the setting for his story. I often wish that I could see a movie or just photographs of the places he describes. One day, on a whim, I searched for images from “The Invincible” and discovered that such pictures actually exist.

Here is a whole gallery of paintings of scenes from “The Invincible”. Seeing these scenes from the book  made the reading of the book again a lot more more enjoyable.

“The Bully Pulpit” – Doris Kearns Goodwin

Recently I’ve become interested in the history of the end of the 19th and the start of the 20th century because I’d like to understand better how progressive ideas overcame the power of monopolies and laissez-faire philosophy. In many ways those days are similar to present day, with increasing inequality between the rich and the poor, and the rising power of large corporations – or “trusts” as they were known back then.

In “The Bully Pulpit” Doris K. Goodwin tells part of this story through a biography of two champions of the progressive cause: Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft.

Teddy Roosevelt got into politics when he was in his twenties. As a young man he was elected to New York state assembly, then served as New York City police commissioner, and eventually was elected a governor of New York. Teddy was a fighter and he worked hard to weed out political corruption. He said about the political parties:

“Each party profited by the offices when in power,” Roosevelt explained, “and when in opposition each party insincerely denounced its opponents for doing exactly what it itself had done and intended again to do.”

The result was that the Republican party nominated him to become the Vice Presidential for William McKinley in 1900, in order to prevent him from running for the second term as Governor of New York.  But six months into his second term McKinley was assassinated and Theodore Roosevelt, unexpectedly,  became the President.

William Taft was a lawyer from Cincinnati. He was widely admired for being a nice, friendly and likable guy. His initial career was moving towards becoming a judge, but his wife encouraged his more political ambitions.  As a result William Taft served in Washington, DC in the Justice Department during the Harrison administration.  While there he met Theodore Roosevelt and the two men formed a friendship that lasted for the remainder of their lives (with some bumps along the way).

At the end of the 19th century a progressive sentiment has been rising in the country. As today there were attempts for disrupt the power of the two major parties. In 1890 the Farmer’s Alliance fielded radical candidates in midterm elections and  Mary Lease, a proponent of reforms, expressed the feeling of many citizens at the time:

“Wall Street owns the country,” she charged. “It is no longer a government of the people by the people for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street.”

At the same time number of progressive magazines that pioneered investigative journalism came into being. Perhaps the most influential of these was McClure’s, which under direction of Sam McClure published works by it’s staff writers, including Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Baker and William White. They wrote extended investigative pieces on railroad and oil trusts.  For example Ida Tarbell’s series on History of Standard Oil eventually led to forced brake up of Standard Oil.

The articles in these magazines moved public opinion to  support of progressive reforms. The popular backing allowed, then President, Theodore Roosevelt to push a number of important legislative reforms such as establishing a Bureau of Corporations, to regulate the behavior of trust. Similarly what we now know as the Food and Drug Administration was first established during Theodore Roosevelt’s term – largely in response to “The Jungle” – a novel, written by Upton Sinclair,  about the conditions in Chicago stockyards.

After Roosevelt served his two terms in office, he helped Taft to get elected to continue the progressive agenda. However, Taft’s disposition was that of a peace maker, not a fighter and Roosevelt along with progressives of the day became unhappy with Taft’s approach. This was despite the fact that Taft managed to get number of policies enacted, for example reforms of tariffs or his aggressive prosecution of monopolies. Still country’s dissatisfaction with Taft was expressed in the 1910 mid-term elections, when the Republican party suffered a humiliating loss.

“It was not only a landslide, ” he acknowledged, “but a tidal wave and holocaust all rolled into one general cataclysm.”

All this led Roosevelt to attempt a presidential run for a third term in 1912.  He attempted to secure the Republican nomination for President, but after  a nasty fight Taft still won the nomination.  In response Roosevelt decided to start a third party, the National Progressive Party, which nominated him as candidate for President.

In the 1912 election  Theodore Roosevelt received more votes that William Taft, but because he split the Republican vote the election was won by  Woodrow Wilson.

After the ill fated 1912 elections, Taft and Roosevelt became estranged and did not speak at all for several years. They did however reconciled, before Roosevelt’s death.

I greatly enjoyed reading “The Bully Pulpit”, and only that very end it occurred to me that the book could have been called “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”.





> Science Fiction: “Fiasco” – Audio Book

Fiasco” was the last novel written by Stanislaw Lem. He wrote more before his passing, but no more novels. I have read “Fiasco” before, in Polish and in English, and this time I listened to the audio book version.  As I observed before, listening to a book exposes more details of the writing and and for this book it showcased the incredible imagination Lem possessed.

On the surface, “Fiasco” is a book about first contact between humans and another civilization – as you can imagine from the title, things do not turn out well. Under the surface the book is a platform for Lem’s philosophical musings on subjects of contact between civilizations, space travel and artificial intelligence.

The book also includes some fantastically imagined alien environments. In fact the chapter begins with an incident that takes place on Titan, a moon of Saturn. I found the detailed description of the landscape there breathtaking – how could Lem imagine such things?

Rather than delve too much into the plot (you can follow the link above to see a very good summary), I wanted to include a quote from the book which expresses Lem’s views on Artificial Intelligence, here presented as a historical description. Here is what he said:

   ” The first inventors of machines that augmented not the power of muscle but the power of thought fell victim to a delusion that attracted some and frightened others: that they were entering upon a path of such amplification of intelligence in nonliving automata that the automata would then become similar to man and then, still in a human way, surpass him. About a hundred and fifty years were needed for their successors to realize that the fathers of information science and cybernetics had been misled by anthropocentric fiction – because the human brain was the ghost in a machine that was no machine.

Creating an inseparable system with the body, the brain both served the body and was served by it. If, then, someone were to humanize an automaton to the degree that it would be in no way different, mentally, from a man, that accomplishment would – in its very perfection – turn out to be an absurdity. The successive prototypes, as the necessary alteration and improvements were made, would become more and more human, but at the same time would be of less and less use – compared with the gigabit-terabit computers of the higher generations.




As one of the historians of science observed, it would be like finally building, after colossal expenditures and theoretical work, a factory for making spinach or artichokes that were capable of photosynthesis – like any plant – and which in no way differed from real spinach and artichokes except that they were inedible.”


If the above passage intrigues you and you like a good science fiction story, by all means go ahead and read “Fiasco” – you will enjoy it.




Old Speakers

So, I had a set of nice Infinity speakers sitting in the basement from the days of having big stereo systems. They were collecting dust. Until recently I discovered Amphony audio amplifiers. The are tiny stereo audio amplifiers, that use bluetooth input. I got one from Amazon and now I can play music from my phone, iPod or tablet through my nice speakers again.

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>Science Fiction: “Blindness”

The book “Blindness”, by Jose Saramago,  is a novel about  an epidemic of “white” blindness that hits inhabitants of a city. The blindness is called “white” – because the affected person “sees” a wall of white, as though inside a cloud, and the intensity of the whiteness is not affected by night or daylight.  The story examines the effect such a disease has on everyday existence of individuals and  the society.

The very first thing I noticed when I started to read this book is that the writer did not use the usual punctuation conventions when writing dialog. He did not separate what people said on the page, nor did he use quotation marks. The only typographical indication that someone started speaking was a capitol letter. Although odd at first, throughout the book I had no problems knowing who was speaking. Here is a small excerpt:

They arrived at the entrance to the building, two women from the neighborhood looked on inquisitively at the sight of their neighbor being led by the arm but neither of the thought of asking, Have you go something in your eye, it never occurred to them nor would he have been able to reply, Yes, a milky sea. Once inside the building, the blind man said, Many thanks, I’m sorry for all the trouble I’ve caused you, I can manage on my own now, No need to apologize, I’ll come up with you, I wouldn’t be easy in my mind if I were to leave you here. They got into the narrow elevator with some difficulty, What floor do you live on, On the third, you cannot imagine how grateful I am, Don’t thank me, today it’s you. Yes, you’re right, tomorrow it might be you.

What I noticed next about the story, that it was told in very personal way. The author writes about how the sudden blindness affected few people and how they had tried to deal with it.  The story was told from the point of view of few characters, without any other explanations as to what else have been going on and without any explanation why. In some ways this approach made the book quite scary, because it was easy to put yourself in the characters place and that was terrifying. Imagine suddenly going blind!

Perhaps the book felt more personal because the author did not give his characters names. They were just: the doctor, the first blind man, or the girl in the dark glasses. As result the reader can more easily place himself (herself) into a given character.

The story proceeded in several sections. When the first few blind people appeared they are quarantined by the authorities in an abandoned mental hospital. As more blind arrived there, the story proceed with the descriptions of their life at the hospital. At times this got very intense, as the author does not shy away from dealing with how your everyday bodily functions can be managed, when you are in a hospital full of blind people.

The interment gets much worse when a gang of blind crooks commands the distribution of food the other inmates. This was the section of the book that I found the hardest to read. There were just some awful things that happened and that were described by the author.

The next section of  the story could be described as a  “zombie apocalypse”.  The society has come undone. Basic utilities, water, electricity, food distribution are no longer working. In the city small bands of blind people wander about looking for food and drink.  The blind people move from shelter to shelter, as once they leave a place they are not likely be able to find it again – there are no guides.

Unlike other science fiction books in this vein, there are no explanations or causes given. Just a story how people try to deal with this personal and at the same global disaster.

I found the book terrifying yet fascinating, disgusting yet hopeful, and  somehow brilliant.  After all the tension built up during the blindness epidemic, there is great relief when the epidemic ends.